The Oval Portrait

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This article is about the short story. For the American post-hardcore band, see The Oval Portrait (band).
"The Oval Portrait"
Poe the oval portrait.JPG
Illustration for "Tales and poems - vol.2" published in 1800s
Author Edgar Allan Poe
Original title "Life in Death"
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Horror
Short story
Publisher Graham's Magazine
Media type Print (periodical)
Publication date April 1842

"The Oval Portrait" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe involving the disturbing circumstances surrounding a portrait in a chateau. It is one of his shortest stories, filling only two pages in its initial publication in 1842.

Plot summary[edit]

The tale begins with an injured narrator (the story offers no further explanation of his or her impairment) seeking refuge in an abandoned mansion in the Apennines. The narrator spends his or her time admiring the paintings that decorate the strangely shaped room and perusing a volume, found upon a pillow, that describes them.

Upon moving the candle closer to the book, the narrator immediately discovers a before-unnoticed painting depicting the head and shoulders of a young girl. The picture inexplicably enthralls the narrator "for an hour perhaps". After steady reflection, he or she realizes that the painting's "absolute life-likeliness' of expression is the captivating feature. The narrator eagerly consults the book for an explanation of the picture. The remainder of the story henceforth is a quote from this book — a story within a story.

The book describes a tragic story involving a young maiden of "the rarest beauty". She loved and wedded an eccentric painter who cared more about his work than anything else in the world, including his wife. The painter eventually asked his wife to sit for him, and she obediently consented, sitting "meekly for many weeks" in his turret chamber. The painter worked so diligently at his task that he did not recognize his wife's fading health, as she, being a loving wife, continually "smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly". As the painter neared the end of his work, he let no one enter the turret chamber and rarely took his eyes off the canvas, even to watch his wife. After "many weeks had passed," he finally finished his work. As he looked on the completed image, however, he felt appalled, as he exclaimed, "This is indeed Life itself!" Thereafter, he turned suddenly to regard his bride and discovered that she had died.

Analysis[edit]

The central idea of the story resides in the confusing relationship between art and life. In "The Oval Portrait", art and the addiction to it are ultimately depicted as killers, responsible for the young bride's death. In this context, one can synonymously equate art with death, whereas the relationship between art and life is consequently considered as a rivalry. It takes Poe's theory that poetry as art is the rhythmical creation of beauty, and that the most poetical topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman (see "The Philosophy of Composition"). "The Oval Portrait" suggests that the woman's beauty condemns her to death.[1]

Poe suggests in the tale that art can reveal the artist's guilt or evil and that the artist feeds on and may even destroy the life he has modeled into art.[2]

Major themes[edit]

Publication history[edit]

"The Oval Portrait" was first published as a longer version titled "Life in Death" in Graham's Magazine in 1842. "Life in Death" included a few introductory paragraphs explaining how the narrator had been wounded, and that he had eaten opium to relieve the pain. Poe probably excised this introduction because it was not particularly relevant, and it also gave the impression that the story was nothing more than a hallucination. The shorter version, renamed "The Oval Portrait" was published in the April 26, 1845 edition of the Broadway Journal.[3]

Critical reception and impact[edit]

The story inspired elements in the 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Five years before the novel's publication, Wilde had praised Poe's rhythmical expression.[3] In Wilde's novel, the portrait gradually reveals the evil of its subject rather than that of its artist.[2]

A similar plot is also used in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 tale "The Birth-Mark".[4]

French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard cited passages from the story in his 1962 film Vivre sa vie. Many[who?] saw this as Godard acknowledging the complexities of using his then-wife Anna Karina in the leading role for his films.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972: 311 ISBN 0-8071-2321-8
  2. ^ a b Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 290. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
  3. ^ a b Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001: 178. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
  4. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 331. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9

External links[edit]